Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas
Written by Ronnie Crocker
The Houston Chronicle/Fork n’ Cork/blogs.cron.com
The previews look promising for Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, the Austin-based chain of movie theaters where good food and craft beer take top billing over tubs of popcorn and giant sodas.
Alamo Drafthouse recently opened its first location outside Texas and is in full expansion mode within its home state. The owners of a franchise group that recently acquired the two suburban Houston theaters are planning upgrades at those sites and — of particular interest to me — have been scouting property inside the 610 Loop.
“Definitely inside the Loop, we’re actively looking,” said Neil Billingsley-Michaelsen, a partner in Triple Tap Ventures LLC. “We don’t view the brand as a suburban brand.”
What that might mean for the beloved but now-vacant Alabama Theater, Billingsley-Michaelsen wouldn’t say. But he spoke approvingly of the inner-city landmark, most recently the site of a Barnes & Noble bookstore that departed for newer digs, and acknowledged the company received numerous calls about it from Houstonians after the franchise agreement was announced in October.
“It’s a beautiful theater,” he said. ” … It would be great to have a theater in it, and let’s leave it at that.”
Any move inside the Loop would be welcome. I’ve been intrigued by the Alamo Drafthouse concept for years — who wouldn’t enjoy a movie more with a fresh beer served at your seat? — but it was only about a month ago that my girlfriend and I finally made the 42-mile round trip to West Oaks Mall to see The Blind Side.
I realize this doesn’t constitute an overnight trip and, yes, I’m aware that many tens of thousands of our readers commute farther than that each day. Still, that’s a lot of time I’d rather not spend in the car.
Once we got beyond Beltway 8 and to the mall, it took just a little searching to find the right corner of the parking lot and, mounted on a bland brown wall, the smallish Art Deco-style sign. Pushing open the mall entrance doors, we spotted the line to our left and an explosion of neon lights behind the ticket window: Huge capital letters spelled the name of the theater, and a kerchiefed cowboy loomed with arms akimbo over a well-stocked beer and wine bar.
A poster in the Alamo Drafthouse lobby.
The posters in the lobby further express the Alamo attitude, advertising such “classics” as From Beer to Eternity and The Seven Beer Itch.
We checked the taps and spotted Drafthouse ESB, a beer made specially for the theaters by the excellent Hill Country brewer Real Ale, then made our way to our seats.
Each row features a small table with full menus. We opted for burgers and the ESB, then wrote our choices on a slip of paper and filed it into its metal slot. A waiter caught the signal and soon appeared to collect the order. Simple, unobtrusive.
The beers arrived first, and though our food came after the movie had begun, there was no unpleasant distraction. The waitstaff moved quietly and efficiently, and I never noticed what anyone else was ordering. Last call was no big deal, either.
John Martin, CEO and president of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, grew up in Houston and learned to love film at the River Oaks Theater back when it had a single screen. After college in Austin, he moved to Los Angeles and worked his way up from the mail room at Orion Pictures to executive jobs in the movie industry.
(Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas)
John Martin, CEO and president of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
Returning to Austin in the early 1990s, Martin fell in love with the Alamo Drafthouse. He purchased the company 5½ years ago and has now set the stage for expansion through franchises. The chain recently opened a second location in San Antonio and its first non-Texas theater in Winchester, Va. Triple Tap plans new theaters not only in Houston but in Amarillo, Corpus Christi, Lubbock, Midland-Odessa and San Marcos as well.
Martin says Alamo will continue its commitment to the movie experience. Among other things, the theaters host beer dinners and special movie-related events. Earlier this year, for example, there were lectures and dinners in conjunction with the documentary Beer Wars.
Next spring in Austin, Alamo will put on its fourth annual Off-Centered Film Fest in collaboration with Dogfish Head Brewing Co.
Notice a theme?
“We heavily promote craft beer,” Martin said.
That means you’ll find taps devoted to great Texas brews from Saint Arnold, Live Oak, Independence and Real Ale, in addition to quality national brands including Stone, Avery and Brooklyn. The theater on Mason Road in Katy also has a “Beer Hunter Club” for repeat visitors; after 30 beers, you get a T-shirt and mug.
Billingsley-Michaelsen said the Alamo theaters at West Oaks and in Katy will soon get a little sprucing up and an expanded wine list. And he promised to maintain the commitment to higher-quality craft beers as the company grows in the Houston area and beyond. If Buds and Millers join the lineup, he said, it’ll be only through the addition of new taps and not through the removal of any of the smaller labels.